"It belongs in a museum!" It's a common refrain among archaeologists who are passionate about preserving artifacts for future generations. But anyone who's seen the end of the 1981 documentary Raiders of the Lost Ark knows that precious relics can be easily forgotten once they make it into storage.
Okay, Indy's not real. But it turns out the endless unmarked boxes piled up as the credits rolled hinted at a truth that is—if not quite stranger than—pretty damn close to that fiction. There have been a surprising number of big-time, real-life discoveries made at museums themselves, when mislabeled, mishandled, or misplaced archeological, paleontological, and highly illogical remains are found, as if by chance, in storage on-site. Here are five recent finds.
Where: Penn Museum, Philadelphia
How: When pros at Philadelphia's Penn Museum began the process of digitizing the collection, project manager William Hafford realized that some of the notes describing a full skeleton found on a 1930s-era exploration of Sumeria were missing the corresponding bones. As it turns out, Janet Monge, chief curator of cultural anthropology, knew of an unlabeled box with human remains that she hadn't been able to ID for over three decades. And hey hey—it was a match! Monge deemed the exceptionally old dude a "healthy individual," and a rare, well-preserved find for the place and time period. [The Guardian; Associated Press]
Where: Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
How: When David Evans got a gig as Associate Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2007, his first order of business was sourcing a long-necked, long-tailed Sauropod to display in the new dino wing. He searched; and he searched; and he searched; until he was unexpectedly tipped off to the existence of a 150-million-year-old Barosaurus skeleton—at the ROM. While catching up on some light in-flight reading in the form of an academic journal he brought on the plane, he noticed a mention of some bones acquired by his institution way back in the 1960s that had all but disappeared from the archives; upon further investigation, it turns out there were hundreds of stray specimens on-site that hadn't been properly logged. Staffers had just enough time to construct "Gordo" the Barosaurus—one of two full displays in the world, and the most complete skeleton of its kind—for the grand opening. [Museum Secrets; ROM]
Where: Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois
How: Amber is really friggin old tree resin. When it was fresh and sticky eons of years ago, it would trap tons of living things—everything from beetles to bees and flies to flowers—that were then preserved intact. In the 1950s, entomologist William Sanderson collected 160 pounds of the stuff from what is now the Dominican Republic. He checked out a (very) small sampling of the itty bitty pieces for ancient goodies, then stowed the whole collection away in a few big buckets under a sink at the University of Illinois. These were forgotten about until four decades later, when they were happened upon by Sam Heads, a paleontologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Heads teamed up with lab tech Jared Thomas, and together they took on the painstaking task of studying the remains—which included a brand new species of 20 million year old flightless grasshopper with vestigial wings. They named it Electrotettix attenboroughi after gentle-voiced friend of flora and fauna David Attenborough. [Washington Post; ZooKeys; News Bureau Illinois]
Where: Winchester City Museum
How: Today's (living) British royalty are comfortably set up in Buckingham Palace, but remains of rulers from the past are continually being unearthed all over the sceptered isle. Alfred the Great was in charge of the country back in the late 800s, but the whereabouts of his body was a mystery to archaeologists, presumed to have gone from two cathedrals in Winchester to Hyde Abbey and then—who knows. After a promising lead that he was located in an unmarked grave at a church cemetery turned out to be a dead end, a pelvic bone found earlier this year in a Winchester City Museum storage box has all the right features—radiocarbon dating, proper age at time of death—to belong to the former King. And if not him, then experts think it's his son or bro (keeping it all in the family). [Scientific American; image, University of Winchester]
Where: Denver Art Museum
How: The Denver Art Museum did an entire online series that chronicled the discovery of a pretty beat up painting by Venetian artist Canaletto, which was hidden in storage for years before the careful conservation efforts that eventually led to the artwork's unveiling. "Yes, even unknown works by old master artists can be found in museum storage areas," explained Timothy J. Standring, who approved the piece's acquisition forms in 2001 but didn't quite realize what he was dealing with until tracking down the misfiled paperwork all that time later. [Denver Art Museum]